Debating Intellectual History in the Classroom
by Christopher Cameron
[Editor’s note: the following post is yet another outstanding offering from our frequent guest contributor Christopher Cameron. In addition to today’s post, he will be contributing to the blog for the remaining Saturdays in June. — LDB]
It was not until a couple semesters into my time as a faculty member that I began teaching intellectual history. I did lecture and assign readings on topics such as the Enlightenment, Puritanism, Transcendentalism, and proslavery thought in my early U.S. survey class. I found that students really struggled to grasp concepts such as Lockean epistemology and its relation to American social thought. Neither did they seem too impressed with John Adams “Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” and our discussions of that text seemed to fall pretty flat. Now I can see why they may not have gotten excited about reading Adams, but I thought surely reading Emerson’s “The American Scholar” would fire them up, as it did when I read it in college back in 2005. Such was not the case. The same was true when I assigned what I think is one of the most interesting sources in American intellectual history, Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
After my second semester of very uninspired discussions whenever the topic was intellectual history, I decided to switch things up and have in-class debates. The first time I did this was after I had lectured on abolitionism and proslavery thought. My students had read Douglass’s speech and Paul Finkelman’s Defending Slavery: Proslavery Thought in the Old South. I then had them debate the question of whether or not slavery should be abolished, using only arguments from the lecture and documents. I promised the winning side extra credit on their exam, and told them their scores would depend on their ability to accurately apply the historical arguments to the question.
It was amazing to see the difference between the way they responded to a traditional discussion and their participation in the debate. By taking on the persona of a James Henry Hammond or Theodore Parker they seemed to internalize and grasp the ideas much more quickly and effectively than I had witnessed before. On top of that, they had fun, which is no small matter.
The way I did this was to allow the students to choose their side. A colleague at Gardner-Webb University uses a similar exercise when teaching antislavery and proslavery thought. He puts all the students on the abolitionist side, however, and the entire class argues against his proslavery stance. At first they are confounded, which is great because they realize the strength these arguments would have wielded at the time, even if they seem ridiculous today. Eventually they find some holes in his case and strengthen their own claims.
I recently used a similar exercise in my American Religious History class. I spent three classes lecturing on 18th and 19th century evangelicalism, as well as the rise of American liberal theology. After assigning excerpts from Peter Cartwright’s autobiography and Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion, along with William Ellery Channing’s sermon “Unitarian Christianity,” I set up another debate. This time, my students were to imagine they were a group of people in the early 19th century deciding on what type of church to form, evangelical or liberal. For the purposes of simplicity I conflated the distinctions within each of these terms. They were to debate the relative merits of the other theological positions and the impact that certain religious ideas had in structuring society. The debate was definitely the most lively discussion we have had, and I left feeling that they understood the concepts much better than after our regular question and answer discussion sections. Of course, using the carrot of extra credit gives them a good incentive for energetic participation, but the debate setting also gets their competitive juices flowing. They become much more invested in understanding the ideas because they want to beat their opponents. And once again, it was a very fun way to spend an hour.
So after trying this out a few times, I am convinced that debates are a very effective tool for teaching the history of ideas. I cannot do it in every class discussion, of course, but will try and have one at least once or twice a semester. So have any of you tried different debate formats or used them for different topics? What other discussion strategies do you employ to liven things up a bit while teaching intellectual history?